When a church building goes up on the mission field, everybody feels good. The missionary feels good. The local believers feel good. The church back home feels good. Having a church building gives the impression that a church has been established. It is a visible sign of the Christian faith in a community. Everybody feels good that the Gospel is advancing and the presence of a church building is a sign of that advance. Or is it?
When the construction of a church building is largely funded by foreign money, the presence of a church building is not a true reflection of the strength and numbers of a local church. Also, if missionaries (or their home churches) are always standing by ready to supply money for newly established churches on the mission field to build church buildings, then this desire to be helpful can foster two wrong ideas: 1) church buildings are necessary in order to be a “real” church and, 2) if you need money, look to the missionary (or the well intentioned short-term visitors from their home church). When the foreign missionaries and their churches are seen as sure sources of money, then the local believers’ motivation to give financially to their own church is lessened and local believers are less likely to make decisions that the missionary doesn’t agree with. If they do, then there is the fear that perhaps the money supply will be cut off. In this way, independent decision making and partnership in the Gospel as equals is diminished. A patron-client relationship harkening back to the days of colonialism is unintentionally nurtured.
Seeing the damage that came from missionaries funding the building of church structures, John Nevius, 19th century missionary to China, practiced as follows: “The chapels, with the chapel furniture, are provided by the natives themselves. As a rule they are not separate buildings, but form a part of the ordinary Chinese dwelling house. Often the chapel belongs to the leader. Sometimes it is rented by the Christians, and in a few places it is a new building specially erected for the purpose of worship. When this is the case, Christians from other villages assist with their contributions, and I have also generally contributed, to the amount of about one-tenth of the value of the building.” (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.45-46)
Nevius was not against church buildings and was not against being generous in giving money to local believers. Missionaries, who often come from countries that are wealthier than the ones where they are living, should set an example in generosity. However, like Nevius, we need to be careful to not establish the idea in the minds of the local believers that a church needs to have a building and that the missionaries will be the ones paying for it.
One of Nevius’ big emphases was that the church would be self supporting right from the start; yet in places where people have become used to receiving missionary money, this is a difficult thing for local believers to accept. If the missionaries have money, why don’t they share it? Westerners are rich but but they are too stingy to help us who are poorer, and brothers in Christ at that. To answer that objection, I’d like to let a Thai pastor speak. In his book “Church Planting”, Sinchai Chaojaroenrat writes, “Why do new churches need to develop in these three areas ‘by themselves’? The reason is that if a church can support itself, govern itself, and propagate itself, then the church planter can move on to plant new churches in other areas or send other people out to plant new churches without having to fear that when newer churches are started, the older church will collapse.” (Chaojaroenrat, Sinchai, “Church Planting”, Church Education and Development, Bangkok, 2003, p.51). The take away lesson here is that church planters need to help believers gain a big picture perspective on the kingdom of God. If a local church can stand on it’s own two feet, then both that congregation and the original church planter will be in a better position to move on to plant still more churches. Missionaries need to set an example of generosity for the believers to see, otherwise they will not learn to be generous themselves. However, giving too much or in ways that foster dependence will end up hurting rather than helping.
There are no hard and fast rules for how to give money, when to give money, and how much to money to give but it seems that the guideline is something along these lines: Be generous in ways that will help local believers and their churches to be generous as well, and grow into full maturity as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.